September in Komodo: Blue, Blue Oceans

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I flew to Flores from Bali, landing at Labuan Bajo, the staging point for Komodo. Komodo itself is a small island off Flores and is home to the famous Komodo dragon. I wasn’t here just to see the dragons, but also to experience the famed diving in the area. Diving here is challenging with the strong currents but very rewarding as it is very much an untouched area with an incredible amount of fish.

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Every dive I had was so blue and full of fish. There were trevally in great abundance and in greater abundance were the fusiliers and other smaller fish that made their prey.

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It was always a fish soup experience each dive.

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Famous here are the pelagics, otherwise known as big fish that swim in the blue, like the ominous looking giant trevally.

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They get pretty big, though not quite as big as a diver!

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It was almost shocking to me how often we saw Napolean wrasse. These are rare in other waters but seeing two or three in one dive was almost the norm here.

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They weren’t too shy and often swam round us in large circles, as if to mark out territory.

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Some of them were not yet in the terminal phase and had lighter markings on their smaller bodies. It was wonderful to see these majestic creatures cruise round us.

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Other creatures were more fearsome than majestic, like the dogtooth tuna. From afar they looked fine…

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… but up closer their rows of teeth and rather unfriendly expression made me think of how eagerly they would take revenge on me – all for my penchant for tuna sashimi.

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There were some slightly dangerous fish in the water. Here’s probably the most dangerous – the titan triggerfish. It’s been known to attack divers and to grave consequence. Thankfully it wasn’t nesting season when they tended to be very aggressive and territorial. This one just cruised past without taking any notice of us.

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Even though they have a reputation for being deadly, sharks are generally pretty harmless. There were lots of white tip sharks in the area. It is obvious how they got their name and it’s marvellous how the white tips are almost luminous in the water.

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These creatures were quite shy and it wasn’t easy to get a photo. It doesn’t help that they tend to be quite small, generally being about one to two metres long.

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Some of them came in right onto the reef but quickly shied away from the avid photographers.

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The closest we got was when there was a white tip shark hiding in a cave, oblivious to the fact that its tail was sticking out for all to admire.

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Guest Post: DC Dives Redang – First Stage

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After much nagging, I finally persuaded DC to do a guest blog. Let’s see what diving’s like from a different perspective! – WS

We decided to go diving a bit closer to home. We’d heard good things about Pulau Redang and decided to give it a try, and scheduled a five-day holiday to dive there. Just for a change, we decided to fly to Pulau Redang instead of taking the usual overland route. The plane, an old De Havilland propellar plane, leaves from Seletar airport and flies directly to the brand new airstrip at Redang. Needless to say, the thought of flying in an old prop plane raised some rather interesting risk analysis over whether flying was more dangerous than Malaysia’s notoriously unpredictable roads. This wasn’t helped by a thunderstorm that delayed the take-off of the plane by one hour!

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However, once we got over the extra bumpiness of the flight and the strange noise of the propeller blades, we managed to get quite comfortable and true to form, we were soon fast asleep and only woke up when we landed at Redang airport. The airport itself is brand new, so brand new in fact that the mandatory fire station wasn’t ready yet. The good news about was that immigration was very fast, given that there was next to no airport building.

From the airport, we caught a quick taxi ride and speedboat to the resort. RedangKalong resort is a PADI 5-star resort with a private beach. The chalets are basic but clean and have hot running water and air-conditioning. The management, headed by A.B. Lee and his brother Tim, are living legends in the Malaysian diving community.

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Once we were there, we settled in for the night and woke up the next morning for our first dive. Being as it was my first dive since my open water exam 5 years ago, I was feeling understandably nervous. However, I was in good hands (my three other diving buddies consisted of two instructors and a rescue diver) and I was soon comfortable in the water. We were soon greeted by the magnificent sight of a school of bumphead parrotfish leaving their nighttime perches to feed.

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Each parrotfish was about 2 to 3 feet long. It was totally awesome to see them glide slowly and regally through the water. It was like watching a royal procession.

Shortly after that, we came across the resident nurse shark in its cave…

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… as well as a school of juvenile chevron barracuda.

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It was a fine start to the holiday. So fine, in fact, that I decided that I just had to do my advanced diving course.

Layang Layang: Pelagics and the Star of the Show – Hammerhead Sharks

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The reason why we were at Layang Layang was really for hammerhead sharks and the pelagics that were so famous in that area. The whole area was just wall diving with corals dropping off from zero metres all the way to 2000 metres into an oceanic trench! We were under strict instructions to secure things to ourselves because anything that fell into the abyss certainly would never be retrieved.

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Our first couple of attempts to find hammerheads drew a blank. We saw other animals instead, like pretty green turtles…

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… who were quite friendly and didn’t spook too easily when we got close.

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We had to go further out into the blue, away from the coral walls, to get a better chance of seeing hammerheads. Sometimes, all we saw was each other in the blue…

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… and nothing but bubbles rising. We normally had to go pretty deep as hammerheads are very shy and never get used to divers because as migratory animals they pass by Layang Layang only occasionally in the year.

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Sometimes we got so bored that we’d take pictures of anything in sight, such as this jellyfish relative that join up to form a rope-like organism floating in the water.

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Yet our persistence paid off. On three different occasions we saw hammerheads, and mostly in threes and fours. They were generally pretty deep and hard to capture on camera. This is the best picture I have, where you can clearly see its scalloped head. On another occasion, we saw a few outlines appearing out and down and as we descended lower, just about reaching the 40m limit, more and more shapes appeared in the blue gloom and the dim shapes with high pectoral fin and just barely discernible odd-shaped heads filled in the entire field of vision. It was truly an awe-inspiring vision seeing that school.

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There certainly were other pelagics that were much less shy, such as this dogtooth tuna that I certainly didn’t want to get any closer.

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Thankfully, it swam over my head and off to find smaller prey instead of taking revenge for my penchant for otoro sashimi!

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We saw quite a few reef sharks, including this white tip reef shark that swam away before I could get in any closer for a better picture, and an even shyer thresher shark that I saw for a few seconds before it swam off.

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The friendlier creatures were the manta rays, which we saw quite a few of.  One of them came in at quite shallow depths and sailed past majestically.

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Others were quite deep and some were in flocks and flitted like birds, disappearing before we could react to take photos. There’s something about how they fearlessly continue on their way, not bothering to hide themselves, that really impresses me about this beautiful creature. I don’t think I could ever get sick of seeing them.

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Other pelagics included many members of the trevally family, including schooling big eye trevally, like below.

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And them turning this way and that to form a tornado.

It was another of those amazing sights, and quite mind-boggling, to see these silvery masses of fish turning round and round, probably to trap prey within.

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Other big fish include this bumphead parrotfish that was curious enough to check us out instead of the other way round!

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I’m glad to report that its ferocious-looking beak is used for chomping down on coral and not on divers!

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And before long, our dive time was up and we had to head back to the surface.

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April in The Philippines: Malapascua

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Malapascua is a beautiful little island north of Cebu. I met up with Omar at Cebu city’s northern bus terminal for the 4 hour bus ride up. Following that was a short 15 minute boat road across and then this idyllic sight met us.

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We spent a good few days diving with Sea Explorers, a very good scuba outfit that took really good care of us. The board below shows Malapascua (right below the tresher shark) and the types of wildlife you can see there. It’s most famous of course for the thresher shark, but there’s lots of other stuff to see there too, like mandarinfish (mating ones at that!), blue ring octopi (which I didn’t spot), lots of other types of sharks and unusual stuff like hairy frogfish and harlequin shrimp.

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It was pretty fun except for the early morning dives, the earliest of which requiring us to be awake at 4.30am. These were to catch the thresher sharks as they came out early to the cleaning stations when the water was cooler. Here’s one of me and the dive guides at sunrise. I look uncharacteristically cheerful in this picture.

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So did we see any threshers? Yup, just one for a couple of seconds out of maybe four hours underwater for the dives we were down there. It was a pity but the rest of the diving made up for it. Omar’s blogged about the trip here and I think he’s done a better (and far faster) job of it.

April in The Philippines: Butanding!

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Nothing really prepares you for your first glimpse of a whaleshark. We’d talked about it the entire lead-up to the trip and saw the pictures and the cute wooden model. Sure, we’d also seen the video and sat through the briefing. At Donsol, south Luzon, the whaleshark is known as butanding. We were divided into various outrigger boats in groups of six, each boat with two spotters who stood high up on the masts and a butanding interaction officer (BIO) who instructed us to don our fins, masks and snorkels when the spotters saw a suitable shadow.

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Once the BIO gave the signal, we would all drop into the water and paddle after him to snorkel with the butanding. We were to stay at least 3m away from the head and body and at least 4m away from the powerful tail.

The first trip into the water was a false alarm. The butanding went too deep to be seen in the blue water, murky from the large amounts of plankton that they feed on. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise because we now knew how hard we had to paddle to keep up with our BIO. We also had time to fix a fin strap. K was almost in tears when the foot strap broke just as she was hurriedly donning her fins.

We sat at the edge of the boat, staring expectantly up at the two spotters balanced high on the bamboo masts, almost biting our nails. Then the signal came. Jump! Jump! Splash! And we were all in the water, paddling hard to get away from the boat and keep up with the group.

Suddenly, a blue-grey head with characteristic markings of white spots and lines loomed up from the deep. This was a 10m long beauty, its flat nose going past us almost too quickly. We all screamed with delight and the sheer wonder of seeing such a large and gentle creature up close. It came up closer to the surface, so much so that I felt I could just dive down and touch it. Paddling a bit harder, I got in front and looked down to see its mouth opening slightly, head tilted upwards to let water gush in, trapping plankton and other goodies for lunch. Then I hung back to the side and its tiny round eyes blinked placidly at me. I felt that its eyes were twinkling at me as if I was a friend. I then admired its gills and how they flapped slightly in the current.

After a few minutes of this, it started diving deeper and we couldn’t keep up anymore. Its tail swept slowly, effortlessly as it glided away, its outline blurring in the deep.

We were lucky this trip: eight sightings in two days. Of course, some were so brief that we only saw the shake of a tail. Others involved swimming in one direction of one, then changing course only to see another  surface. Each interaction lasted between a few seconds to a good 10 minutes where some of us got exhausted by the constant paddling to keep up.

Seeing these beautiful creatures touched something deep inside me and I know for sure that I want everyone to have a chance to see this. It’s a bit silly to admit, but only on seeing a whaleshark up close did I realise that big fins must come from big fish, so the giant fins you see displayed at shops and restaurants must come from the whale shark, the biggest fish on earth. I’d already stopped eating shark fin and this strengthened my resolve to go a bit further by telling people at Chinese dinners why I don’t eat it. I’ve since persuaded a few just from my butanding story not to eat shark fins. Even the smallest number makes a difference.

[No photos because I still hadn’t bought an underwater camera at this point. Pris has some great photos on Facebook. Check them out!]

From discovery.com

From discovery.com